Thriving proprietary restaurants contribute to the civic pride and vitality of the communities they serve. On the Greater Phoenix grid, Central Avenue is ground zero. Thanks to Arizona's booming population and ongoing urban renewal efforts in its capital, the city's centerline is also prime real estate for epicurean entrepreneurs looking to feed the groundswell of urbanites that live, work, and play in the midtown corridor. If family-run Aiello's isn't the signpost of food commerce in trendy "CenPho" these days, it's certainly considered one of its solid citizens. Italian staples are the standard here, hearty, and homespun.
After a good run as New York restaurateurs, Joe and Myrah Aiello packed up their Panini presses and pasta recipes and retired to the ‘Valley of the Sun,’ in 2000. Indulging in the urge to get back in the business, they re-opened the family cookbook and unfurled quaint-cozy Aiello's in 2007. Since then, everyone from the food press to the dining public have gone meatballs over the old favorites menu this mom-and-pop stop's been serving up.
Hanging its shingle on a large, lived-in looking property that has housed a horde of prior restaurants, Aiello's shares the space with its landlord's business offices. With its interior walled-off near mid-building, the feel is quaint and cozy; the reddish, single room with its big, twinkling wreath above the bar strikes us as oddly festive for a July evening.
On Roman holiday here, I ask for the first item on my wish list -- a cocktail suggestion -- the minute our server presents herself tableside. "Let me bring our bartender over.” She defers to a resident expert, who stops by in seconds. Passing on the Italian Margarita he promotes (made with Amaretto); I opt instead for a classic Negroni. An aromatic mix of dry gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth, it proves an appropriately Adriatic aperitif.
Appetites whetted, we wade into dinner. Having read some good ink about the pizzas here, we're surprised to find none offered on the evening menu, and only a single, build-your-own model gracing the lunch bill of fare. But in a follow-up conversation with Myrah Aiello subsequent to my visit, she assures me that Aiello's does, in fact, do a bustling pie business. "But only back door-style (to go), the New York way," she clarifies. "And just fifty pies a night. That's it."
Hungry for preliminary courses, I more than placate myself with bites of spongy focaccia and crusty baguette, drizzling both with a red pepper, onion, and basil-infused olive oil, which raises my future expectations for complimentary bread service. Simple basil butter served alongside holds my attention, too.
Browsing Aiello's all-Italian wine list, I see helpful tasting notes astride every selection. Describing "Dogajolo," a Tuscan Sangiovese blend, for instance, the flavor profile reads, "Cherry fruit, accented by hints of vanilla and coffee." And the pricing is as accessible as the inventory.
Digging into the Eggplant Rollatini, we devour two, lightly floured and fried rolls of slivered eggplant filled with silky ricotta, mozzarella, and Romano. The accompanying pomodoro sauce is subtle; so much so that I make practical use of the adorning basil leaf garnish, tearing bright-tasting shreds away with every forkful.
Afterward, the Tre Colore Salad of traditional arugula, endive, and radicchio orchestrate a salute to the green, white, and red of the Italian flag; the combination balances bitter chicory notes and peppery greens with sharp, shaved parmesan and a toss of simple lemon juice and fruit-fragrant olive oil. For me, both of these dishes demonstrate the real craft of cooking: The ability to proffer the sublime experience of eating well through simplicity.
If pasta is, in fact, the most universally beloved foodstuff of the Italian legacy, somebody should build a monument to Aiello's Spaghetti alla Puttanesca. True to its pejorative-spiced name, this boldly-seasoned bowl of pleasantly toothsome pasta proves plucky, right down to the alternating pitted and un-pitted olives I find nestled in its tangles, along with briny anchovy and capers. Like its namesake, this dish flirts shamelessly with bold flavors I find hard to resist, and leaves me wanting more.
On the other side of the table, the Chicken Fiorentina proves pleasingly prim and proper by comparison. A magnanimous portion of chicken breast sautéed to a tender turn presents itself in delicate dress: Wilted spinach, buttery Fontina cheese, and a creamy panna sauce (think Alfredo light). It arrives escorted by couldn't-be-simpler green beans and a crisp potato croquette. Contently mopping bites of everything on our plates (while comparing the two dishes) feels like some devil-in-one-ear/angel-in-the-other exercise. As to which makes the better case for turning one’s head, I still can't say with clear conscience.
Indulging a sweet fang, finally, a shared cannoli makes us half-forgive ourselves for giving in to the temptation. Addictively Vanilla-scented and packed with more chocolate chips than the Keebler Elf Tree House, the cassata-style cream filling should be granted “controlled substance” status, considering how nearly it drives us to a pathetic, public display of plate-licking.
Before we roll out the door, a manager stops by our table and offers us a turn at ‘Tombolo,’ Italy's answer to Bingo. Call the numbered ball about to roll out of a tumbler filled with ninety, he challenges, and dinner's on him (alcoholic beverages excluded). Game as ever, my heart says to go with my birthday, May 8th; but glancing over at the girlfriend, a more romantic notion gets the best of me. "Two's our lucky number," I call. He shakes the jug. A ball bounces out. "The number is eight," he shrugs with a smile. "Perhaps we'll play again soon."
Breaking bread and making merry among friends and family is one of our truest and simplest pleasures as social animals. From the genuine goods they deliver to the games they play with their guests, Aiello's gets it, and the gesture is heartfelt.
For all of it, mille grazie.